I’m not tired, I’m just tired of you (Sleep Like A Baby #5)

I lost my momentum on the “How to Sleep Like a Baby” series when sleep turned into a problem for me again.  It takes some chutzpah to post sleep advice when you’ve still got only one kid and (God willing) many more years of childrearing for things to go wrong in.  It’s probably clear from my previous posts that I have sleep problems, too.  I think that, like the two-timing preacher who speaks so poetically about grace, having these problems is what qualifies me to give advice.  And if any of you reading this have parental sleep advice or stories about what’s worked for you, chime in!

Rebecca’s sleep got bumpy again around sixteen months.  This time around, I wasn’t just tired.  I was angry with her, because she kept insisting on rocking, even though she’d grown too heavy for me to rock comfortably or settle back into bed smoothly.  So she’d wake up when I put her down, suck a little on my already spent nipples, and pull me out of my warm snuggy bed to go back to rocking.  After a couple weeks of this, I decided that I’d hold her in bed however she wanted, but not rock her in the middle of the night.  She screamed for a few minutes–she wanted to rock–then conked out in my arms and didn’t ask to rock again.  Currently Rebecca’s waking up between two and twelve times a night, but I’m happier.

This story introduces my final major point about night parenting:  Take care of yourself.  A year ago, when I started writing this post and it still seemed good to soothe Rebecca back to sleep every time she woke, there were a lot of mornings when I woke up well-rested but simultaneously feeling like I needed a break.  Taking care of a baby all night is hard work, even if you manage to get enough sleep in the process.  But though you may need to be up at night, you get to set some of the conditions for it.

When you wonder why no one’s as solicitous of you, as you are of this baby.

Hardest thing for me about becoming a mother was that a lot of my pre-baby self-care practices stopped being practical, right when I needed them to deal with the emotional turmoil of becoming a parent.  And the more I got stuck thinking through the things in my head, the more frustrating soothing a baby was.   In The Myth of the Bad Mother, psychologist Jane Swigart explains how emotionally difficult it can be to take care of someone when you don’t feel taken care of yourself, or when taking care of someone else leads you to re-experience ways you were deprived in the past.  As she points out, helping parents have the resources to be emotionally available to their children is a societal issue, not just something to be solved privately.  But it does help a little to be gentle with yourself in the dark.

My mom loved Christmas, so she sang Christmas carols as lullabies year round.  I used to like to wear my mom’s scarf when I rocked Rebecca at night, because it reminded me how she used to rock me and my siblings.  Would you enjoy being up more if you lit a candle or did aromatherapy?  If you had some knick-knacks or pictures next to the rocking chair, or a few of your childhood stuffed animals? If you said Hail Marys to calm your baby to sleep?  If you kept a full glass of water with a bendy straw on both night stands?

You don’t necessarily need to go all cozy and feminine here, if that’s not your thing.  During the first month of Rebecca’s life, my night uniform consisted of my dad’s old army shirt and my mom’s do-rag.  I giggle a little now when I see pictures of myself, but my choice of costume did reflect a sense that I could be in for anything over the night.   I didn’t know when I went into it what resources it would take to get through to morning, but when I got up for Rebecca’s first nursing session of the night and tied on the do-rag to keep my hair out of my face, I thought to myself, “Okay, I’m ready for business.”

What makes you feel loved and strong?  What gives you a sense of plenty?  If you know you’re going to be up at night with your baby, can you add elements to your routine that will nourish you, too?

What if sleep isn’t the real problem?

Before I had a baby, nights were a time when I wasn’t on the job unless I decided to be, and I wasn’t urgently responsible for doing much of anything.  It must’ve been refreshing.  Being at my own disposal all night helped eliminate what  psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “psychic entropy.”

The attention we pay to things throughout the day is a finite resource.  In other words, you only have so much attention to give, and keeping an eye on your baby all day and night is obviously going to be draining.  But the consequences go beyond that.  Csikszentmihalyi argues that how we allocate our attention determines the quality of an experience.  Immersing oneself in a task without distractions creates a well-ordered psyche and tends to feel good.  Having your thoughts continually interrupted or cultivating a state of distraction doesn’t necessarily feel bad, but it gives rise to mental chaos or psychic entropy, which prevents you from being able to direct your attention effectively.

When you’re doing something, get interrupted with something you need to do, then get interrupted again while doing that, you don’t kill the mental job each time you’re interrupted.  Or at least I don’t.  I end up with several different tasks going on in my head until I hardly know what I’m thinking.  It’s not quite the same as multitasking, where you’re intentionally doing several things at once and figuring out the best way to get all of them to happen.  When psychic entropy goes up, my ability to process new information slows down, and I have trouble making decisions or executing plans.  More concretely, Ted asks me where I want to go for dinner and I just stare.   Plus I’m more emotionally volatile.

I experience this state as premature exhaustion, and sleeping usually can solve it.  But here’s the thing:  Sleep often isn’t the best solution for me.  If I can get someone else to watch my daughter for twenty minutes or a half hour, I pull out paper and start free-writing, jotting down whatever comes into my head and not stopping.  If I get the jumble on paper, then I’m no longer trying to think everything at once.  Typically I feel wide awake and energized afterwards.

Has anyone else experienced something like this?  What activities would you recommend?

Click on the category “Sleep” to see the rest of this series.